Long hair, ponytail, square-rimmed glasses. A smile on their face, perhaps. This is a picture of Morgan Harding, if they never had that fateful meeting with a robot on the run. I sometimes dream about this Morgan when I’m in my deepest of doldrums, and for some reason I’m way far down in that hole just right now.
Morgan, when they were twenty years old, had an encounter that changed the shape of the rest of their life. Whether by accident of fortuitous twist of fate, they met someone who changed their life forever. They died. They were saved. They came back cybernetically enhanced. They had some abilities that exceeded a normal human by any measure. They were faster, stronger, better reflexes, better healing—an evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens in just about every conceivable way. They were a lot more than their skinny appearance let on, and so they decided to use their powers to save the city of Atlanta in any way they could.
But that is not THIS Morgan.
THIS Morgan ran late for work that day, maybe. Overslept after getting lucky the night before, or after getting really unlucky and getting lost on the way home from some nameless club. Either one is plausible enough. But this Morgan did not have a sentient machine crashing out of a window and landing next to them, did not have an adventure which both cost and gained them their life.
And so this Morgan went to the coffee shop near the CNN Center for their scheduled shift. Their boss chewed them out for being late, but then they got on with everything just fine. It was a cold January morning, just the kind of weather that attracted more caffeine-craving customers than a Folger’s fan club assembly.
What happened next? It’s a little bit hard to say. What were they doing before, and what would they have done if not for fate’s ultimate turn? Probably continue working a little bit longer in that same coffee shop, complaining about hours and pay but too complacent to really change anything. They still needed glasses to see past their own eyeballs. They still needed to work out to lift more than a single gallon of milk at a time. They still had so much in their life that they wanted to fix, and had accomplished a grand total of none of it.
However… The decade had only just started, fresh and new, and this crisp, groggy January morning might have given this Morgan the push they needed to make something of themself.
There was no reason to still be working at a place like a dinky coffee shop next to the CNN Center. Morgan had places to go. People to be. People to meet. And a part-time job at minimum wage was never going to cut it. They only started there to work with Reina, who had quit ages prior. The two weren’t even on speaking terms anymore. Being a barista with nothing ahead made Morgan restless and weary and ready to jump into action… so jump they did.
Out went the job, in went the education. This Morgan knew they had a talent for study and research. Their sister was a private eye, after all. It ran in their blood to get down to the roots of subjects they knew nothing about, to learn everything there was to know about a subject and synthesize it down into chunks of wisdom. They started at Georgia State University that spring. They moved out of their apartment and into a student dorm. Had to beg their parents for money and the bank for a loan, but they made it work. A few years later than most college students, but with A-level scores as good as theirs, this Morgan didn’t have much trouble jumping right in.
They aced classes, stayed up late studying, and drank a lot with friends. Maybe they had done well in math in high school, but it wasn’t likely that they’d be continuing a path like that. STEM wasn’t for a kid like Morgan, not this Morgan at least. No, they’d place themself firmly in the social sciences camp. Anthropology, maybe. Linguistics, perhaps. Possibly even Geography, if they gave it the chance.
Georgia State University was a large, massive campus, and Georgia State University was a gray, concrete campus to boot. The best skills in urban design couldn’t make this kind of place feel like home, sad as it was to say, and the brutalist dorms cemented the feeling that a school like this would always be a fleeting memory in the eyes of those already passing into adulthood.
This Morgan had already had their taste of adulthood. They had already spent years in service (or the service industry). Four years at a college made for the greatest reprieve they ever could have asked for.
Except that in a campus this big, this cold, this gray, this Morgan Harding wouldn’t have the same bonds they might have made if they had, say, took a train out West and lived some anonymous life farming and learning to play the guitar. They certainly wouldn’t have met Karina Kodama, a student so busy she didn’t have time to attend her classes on many a day. Even if they chanced together, sitting in on the same lecture by a guest speaker who talked about the differences between coding languages and spoken ones, they wouldn’t have met. They wouldn’t have fallen in love or fallen in friendship, or anything in between. This Morgan would never have been able to know what it felt like to run their fingers across Karina’s back and hug her like the world would end the moment they let go.
And, for all that was worth, this Morgan would never have felt a tinge of sadness about any of it. Because they would have made new friends. Casual friends who came over on Friday nights to beg Morgan to buy them booze, to rent laserdiscs from the local shop and run them ‘till the sun rose up. And maybe they’d have even found love somewhere else.
None of that, of course, would have really mattered all that much. College, for this Morgan, was about fun and learning. And both of those came at every corner.
Four years went by and they took that B.A. in Anthropology (or Linguistics or Geography) from their professor’s hands with a firm grip and a prideful, toothy grin. The crowd cheered in elation and their family, Dad and Mom and Mark and Marge, came up to greet them in a warm, tearful embrace. The youngest, smallest gem of the Harding Family had finally sparkled at its brightest.
Sure, they’d be waiting tables again soon enough, or doing whatever jobs were left that robots hadn’t taken by that point, as they worked their way through grad school and dove deeper into the world of academia. But it was all worth it for this Morgan.
Prewar pop culture, postwar movies, the ethnographies of different peoples scattered across the former United States… this Morgan Harding studied it all. They published papers on the folklore of rural farming communities in the Black Belt. They spent a month in Oklahoma to study the last speakers of the final living dialect of Cherokee. They wrote a thesis, the first of its kind, on the effects of Netnect on nationalism movements in the Northeast. And, eventually, they got a tenure-track position up in Chattanooga, where they could do all the research they wanted on the broader continent, just a train ride away.
By then, this Morgan surely would have accepted their own body, found themself comfortable in their own skin for the first time in their life. They’d have grown out their hair like they always planned to. They’d have started working out five times a week. And they would absolutely have rocked an entire wardrobe of sleeveless shirts to show off their newly broadened shoulders.
Maybe they’d have started a band by now. Maybe they’d have gotten into guitar here, too, working out of a janitor’s closet of a professor’s office and hoping to see the next bright student stumbling in during their open hours.
This Morgan met a girl, probably a few. But this time it was different. Ruth, maybe. Ana or Sofia or Yang. There were a lot of options, but this Morgan stumbled right into exactly the woman they needed at that moment. And within a couple of months, the wedding plans drew themselves right into action. That’s just how Morgan worked those days.
A spontaneous marriage into a spontaneous divorce, fulfilling the Harding sibling legacy in more ways than one. But it was for the best. This Morgan needed a good shock to their system, because there was just so much left for them to do.
Tenure-track professor life wasn’t enough. This Morgan wanted to accomplish things beyond teaching teens and publishing papers. So they quit and left Chattanooga with nothing but the bag on their back and the money in their credit card. And they studied humanity up close and personal the only way they knew how: by working. Whatever jobs were left, Morgan took them. They built houses. Cleaned warehouses. Organized local ballot campaigns. Wrote speeches. But most of all, they discovered what parts of culture they really loved, which was all of it.
Someday, they settled back down. They went to Savannah and took care of their Mom and Dad while their siblings went about their own lives countless miles away. And there, they found another woman worthy of their love. A woman worthy enough to marry, to adopt children with, to set down roots in this gorgeous port town with.
And even after their parents had passed, and after the grays had set into their ponytail, this Morgan remained there in Savannah, living out the rest of their days with a family they loved, and that loved them in return.
They’d pass, surrounded by loved ones and annoying robot caretakers. Marge would make a snide remark, Mark would chastise her, and then this Morgan would softly chuckle as their consciousness faded for good.
This Morgan died for the first and only time.
And maybe they were a hero to their family, or something hokey like that. But most of all, they were a hero to themself.
At least, that’s how I always imagine it.
It’s an alternate reality that doesn’t, and never will exist. Because I DID meet a sentient robot who came crashing down out of a window and landed right in front of my stupid face. Because I DID die and came back stronger than ever. Because I DID meet Karina Kodama, and Jones Burrow, and Amy Hawthorne, and Chuck Araragi, and Yuri Motokawa, and everyone else whose paths I’d have never crossed had it not been for my life being completely changed.
And so, even though I imagine myself as a completely different person, it’s all just some sort of fanciful fantasy. I have no idea if I’d have gone back to college and become an Anthropology professor and set down my roots in Savannah. Maybe I’d have kept working at that coffee shop the rest of my life until I became the manager, and then gotten in some unhappy thirty-year marriage with a newscaster who happened to become a regular. Maybe I’d have run into a certain someone after many long years gone, and we’d have run off together like we always dreamed about while we did our homework together.
All these possibilities do is help ground me in the now, the only one that matters. I have one path ahead of me, and it is saving the city of Atlanta from whatever threats may face it. I might just be a bucket against a river, but I’ll be damned if I won’t be the most steadfast bucket there is.
And that’s why, even if this whole Mighty Slammer case is ridiculous and stupid and makes me feel like I’m a crappy hero at every turn, I’m not going to stop.
I’m going to solve it, just like I always do. And that starts with questioning Phil McWhorter, whoever the hell he is.
After a morning full of random thoughts spinning around my head, I eat a hearty biscuits & gravy lunch and head out the door to my apartment.